High-Flying History

A daring daylight bombing run aboard a genuine B-17 may be our most memorable flight ever.

I’m seated in the plexiglas nose cone of a massive B-17 bomber, hunched over a once top-secret Norden bombsight as this morning’s target comes into view. But instead of reaching for the switch that will release our load of 1,000-pound bombs, I turn to my friend Todd to find we’re both wearing the kind of idiotic grins that can only come from living a life-long dream.

For as long as either of us can remember, we’ve been fascinated with World War II aircraft in general and the gigantic B-17 long-range bomber in particular. But today, more than a half-century after thousands of these “Flying Fortresses” filled the skies over Europe, fewer than a dozen B-17s remain in flying condition.

Fortunately for aviation geeks and history buffs like us, the Commemorative Air Force’s Arizona Wing has beautifully restored this particular B-17G—dubbed Sentimental Journey—and works hard to maintain it in flying condition.

he organization offers walking tours of the plane at its sparkling new “flying museum” at Mesa, Arizona’s Falcon Field airport and at dozens of air shows across the country each summer. But when I heard that they also offer 45-minute flights aboard this rapidly vanishing piece of aviation history, well, let’s just say it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

After climbing the short ladder and scrambling through the plane’s forward hatch, we watched pilot Sam Korth and copilot Bob Blue fire up the B-17’s four massive Wright Cyclone radial engines one by one. To get a better sense of what the young men who crewed these gigantic planes must have endured, I pulled out my earplugs once all four engines were running to hear a reverberating roar that made me feel like I was seat-belted inside a running lawnmower.

After take-off, with ear plugs firmly back in place, the mechanical din faded into a dream-like hush where everything seemed to move in slow-motion. As Todd and I crawled through the Sentimental Journey’s no-nonsense interior trying out several of the big silver bomber’s ten crew positions, it was like being in a full-color version of the black-and-white 12 O’Clock High television series I watched devotedly as a kid.

Geeky as it may sound, being able to take our turns in the bombardier’s seat and look down the barrels of the top turret’s twin .50-caliber machine guns in flight was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill that still hasn’t quite worn off. Add the fact that no one really knows how much longer the good folks at the Commemorative Air Force can keep this impressive machine flying and you’ll understand why I’d strongly encourage you to sign up for a B-17 mission of your own before it’s too late.

Xtrordinary Xtra
The Norden bombsight—a complex device that actually allowed the bombardier to take control of the airplane during the final bombing run—was once considered so secret that it was removed from the plane after landing and kept under armed guard.

Xtrordinary Xtra
The B-17 got its “Flying Fortress” nickname because of its extensive defensive armament including more than a dozen .50-caliber machine guns. The plane was also widely respected by the men who flew it for its ability to sustain heavy damage from enemy fighters or anti-aircraft guns and still return safely to base.

The Facts
Name: Commemorative Air Force/Arizona Wing
Location: 2017 North Greenfield Road, Mesa, AZ
Phone: 877-201-7305; 480-924-1940
Website: www.arizonawingcaf.com

My Advice

  • Flights aboard the Sentimental Journey are offered at the CAF/Arizona Wing’s suburban Phoenix home base from October through April. To find out if the plane will be visiting an airshow near you during its annual summer tour, click on the “Calendar” link on the organization’s website.
  • Because getting a plane this size off the ground isn’t exactly cheap, there’s a five-passenger minimum for all B-17 flights. Repairs and maintenance can also take the plane out of service, so it’s a good idea to confirm your reservation a few weeks ahead of time.
  • Be sure to allow yourself enough time to tour the CAF/Arizona Wing’s museum which showcases a wide variety of vintage military aircraft from a B-25 bomber to a Russian MIG-21 fighter.
  • For a fascinating look at the men who flew these planes, click on the “B-17 Crew Positions” link on the organization’s website.